‘Public pianos are in tune with our desire to bring joy to people around us’

‘Public pianos are in tune with our desire to bring joy to people around us’

Long before this year’s John Lewis Christmas advert, Elton John gave strangers the gift of a piano.

After playing a few bars of his hit Tiny Dancer for stunned commuters at London’s St Pancras station, he left the piano behind with a note.

“My gift is my song,” the message said, “and this piano’s for you.”

Donated in 2016, Elton’s piano wasn’t the first at St Pancras.

The oldest one on the concourse is brightly painted and was donated in 2012. It comes with an instruction “Play me. I’m Yours”.

One of over 1,900 upright pianos rescued from landfill to appear in public places in 60 cities all over the world – from New York to San Jose and Paris to London – it was saved as part of a project started by British artist Luke Jerram.

At St Pancras station one of the regular players of the piano is a man who has “homeless ups and downs” and who calls himself Michael Piano Man. He says simply: “The piano keeps me alive.”

When he first saw the piano at St Pancras he says: “It was like I’d walked into the Garden of Eden. Everyone has their bad days and you need something to help those bad days. It’s therapy.

“I don’t see doctors. When I go to the piano, I find all the medicine that I need. I help myself – the piano heals me.”

The piano, he says, “strokes your heart, it mellows you”.

Jerram launched the project as an ongoing artwork in 2008 and ­estimates its pianos have been listened to by more than 10 million people worldwide. But it was never just about rescuing pianos.

The first instrument he placed was at a laundrette, a space where he noticed no one spoke to each other. Now they are in stations, parks and shopping centres.

This year, the Together television channel and the Campaign to End Loneliness, want Christmas to be all about public pianos bringing people together for a festive sing-song, whether its carols, or Fairytale of New York.

When people live in smaller and smaller spaces, music is being cut at schools because of vicious budget cuts, and pianos have gone from pubs, public pianos have never been more important. Meanwhile, for someone like Michael they are a lifeline.

In a film by Maureen Ni Fiann to be shown on Together channel tomorrow and on Christmas Day, teenager Jamie Manahan says she copes with depression by playing the street piano in the underpass by Herne Hill station in South London.

“Music is my heartbeat,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if my heart was shaped like a treble clef.”

Chas Hodges, one half of Chas & Dave, also gave one of the last performances before he died on a street piano.

The Herne Hill piano even led to an audition for The Voice for Mina Hernandez David, who drives a bin lorry. “Singer Jessie Ware filmed me on her phone and I got invited for an audition after it went viral,” she says.

Producers traced her via the yellow refuse collector’s vest she was wearing.

Famous musicians often stop to play the pianos too. Alicia Keys played a street piano in New York, and Jamie Cullum stopped to play the one at the Sacre Coeur in Paris.

“Pianos are a way of connecting people,” Jools Holland says.

“The piano is not just the friend in the living room. It can be the friend in the station.”

Self-taught concert pianist James Rhodes says: “It’s the one thing that has never let me down.

“Music is always there. It always does the job. It’s not something digital, it’s made of copper and wood and strings. At one time this country had more pianos than bathtubs. One in every pub.”

From Rocketman to Piano Man, this Christmas is all about pianos. As I write, a battered but beautiful piano a friend saw being ­advertised free to a good home on Facebook is arriving at my home. A free gift from one family to another.

But street pianos are a free gift for everyone – musicians with no space to have a piano, pianists with no home or far from home, passers-by, and people facing a blue Christmas alone.

“One time a girl came up to me crying, and she sat down with me,” Michael Piano Man says.

“I played her a Bach piece and she took it in and in no time the tears had gone. It’s amazing to think what the piano can do. It strokes your heart, it mellows you.”

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